As soon as the San Antonio Spurs convincingly swept the Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals, the following two questions were inevitable: Does this San Antonio team, having won four titles in nine years, qualify as an NBA dynasty? If so, where do they fit amongst the other great dynasties throughout NBA history? Truthfully, this analysis has been done to death; every basketball website has at least five articles debating the Spurs dynasty status and their place in history. John Hollinger even came up with a neat little formula (as expected) for trying to rank all NBA Finalists and after the sweep was in the books he calculated the ‘07 Spurs as ninth best all-time (just ahead of the ’99 Spurs). Most people are convinced this is the best Spurs team of them all, and most consider them a worthy dynasty. But I wasn’t convinced.
So it got me thinking… if I want to really judge where this Spurs team lies amongst the all-time great dynasties I need some kind of criteria, some set of rules that I can apply to see how they truly measure up. I wasn’t planning on writing an article about it, far from it. I really just wanted some arguments to have handy so next time someone in a pub tells me the Spurs are better than Shaq’s Lakers I can shoot them down without looking like a drunken fool. But when I wrote down these rules I felt compelled, just as Moses did, to share them with everybody. Without any further ado, I present to you The Three Dynasty Commandments:
Let me explain where these came from:
The first thing a dynasty needs is lots of titles (call me Captain Obvious), at least three, with the key players being consistent throughout this time. Two titles isn’t enough because as the 94-95 Houston Rockets showed it’s possible for a team to suddenly rise to the top of the NBA, win back-to-back rings, and then disappear just as quickly (the Rockets didn’t even make the Western Conference Finals in ’93 or ’96). The “same key players” rule is necessary because all dynasties (even ancient Chinese ones) are symbolised by their leader, and when a new leader is crowned a new dynasty begins. If Joe Dumars had teamed up with Grant Hill to win Detroit a title in 1996 you wouldn’t say the Pistons “dynasty” included three titles in seven years, because the first two were under the rule of the Isiah Thomas empire. Different leaders, separate dynasty.
How the Spurs measure up:
Four titles is more than the Shaq-Kobe Lakers or even the Bird-Celtics won, so the Spurs easily pass this first test. As far as consistency in the line-up goes, the ’99 San Antonio team didn’t have Ginobili or Parker, or anyone else from today’s team not named Tim Duncan. But because Tim was there (in Finals MVP-winning form), and because Pop was still coach, we give them the benefit of doubt as far as continuity goes.
I believe the second commandment to be the most important one: back-to-back titles. Plenty of NBA ex-players and coaches will tell you that the hardest thing in basketball is defending your title. It takes an incredible amount of focus to make it all the way to the NBA Finals and win the thing, when the taste of victory champagne is still fresh in your mouth from last year. You need to be hungry. You need to claw and climb your way to the top of the NBA mountain and then say “You know what? This isn’t enough”. It is a measure of greatness, and for that reason it has to be a criterion for any NBA dynasty.
How the Spurs measure up:
As good as the Spurs have been over the past nine years, they have failed to get that back-to-back title, which to me says a crucial ingredient is missing in their mindset. It’s easy to respond to adversity with a renewed focus. It’s easy to use playoff failure as a springboard for your next season’s championship aspirations – the Spurs have done that for each of their four titles. But it’s hard when your motivation has to come from nothing more than the desire to “do it again”.
If you think the back-to-back championship rule is harsh (and I suspect most Spurs fans would) then surely it’s reasonable for a dynasty to at least include back-to-back Finals appearances, right? Amazingly the Spurs fail this too – at no point during their nine-year “dynasty” did they even give themselves a chance of repeating by making the Finals. The Magic Johnson Lakers made four and later three straight Finals, the Larry Bird Celtics made four straight, the Jordan Bulls made three straight… twice, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers made three straight… hell even the Detroit Pistons made three straight Finals in the late eighties. The Tim Duncan Spurs have never even made two in a row! Hardly the stuff of dynasties.
Any “dynasty” needs to have been a dominant team for a long stretch of time even if they weren’t winning titles during the entire stretch. I’ll take a lead from Robert Horry on this one, who said “A dynasty is a team that’s been dominant over a 10-year span… anything else, is too short. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers who won three straight? That was too short”. Perfectly reasonable logic except for two things:
1. I’d be more lenient and say seven years instead of ten. In today’s game of salary caps and draft lotteries, any team that can win three titles in seven years deserves to go down in history as a dynasty (not to mention the fact that players these days rarely stay with the same team for ten years)
2. He’s plain wrong about the Lakers
The Shaq/Kobe Lakers won three titles all in a row from ’00-‘02, and two years later the team totally self-destructed and Shaq went down to Florida – easy to see why Horry doesn’t rate that as a dynasty. But if you look closely you’ll find this Lakers team was dominant all the way back to 1997-1998 when they won 61 games and made the Western Conference Finals, right up to their Finals appearance in 2003-2004. That’s a good eight years where the Lakers were amongst the league’s best teams; throw a three-peat in there and it screams “dynasty”.
How the Spurs measure up:
The Spurs seem to pass the “Horry Rule” simply because they have been such an imposing and consistent team since their first title in ’99 (that’s eight years ago), and I see that continuing until Duncan retires. Realistically there’s no reason the Spurs can’t compete for titles over the next five years, which would give them an incredible thirteen year run of success that few NBA teams throughout history could match.
It seems that according to the three commandments the Spurs fail to achieve “dynasty” status (for now anyway, I wouldn’t bet against them winning the title next year). But they are clearly still a team for the history books – only the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls franchises have more championship banners hanging from the rafters. So just for the fun of it, I thought I’d see where Timmy Robot and the Spurs rank amongst the great NBA teams of the past 30 years based on the dynasty commandments (and a few crazy ideas of my own). I spent about 27 hours making the Dynasty Chart below, and over the next few weeks I’ll take a look at each of these legendary teams and the stories that defined their legacy.
So stay tuned for future updates and make sure to check out the TrashTalk forums for your daily dose of NBA discussion.
The duration of each dynasty was judged as the period of time in which they were a title-contending team (not necessarily the year of their first championship). I was a little lenient in that the earlier year was the starting point – i.e I felt the Bulls were championship material in the 1989-90 season, so I start their dynasty at 1989. My reasoning for each dynasty timeframe will be explained as I look at each team in detail. Also note that the number of titles won is designated by rings above each team’s logo.